Early on in the provincial Liberal leadership campaign I heard from a couple of prominent provincial NDPers that they did not think Kathleen Wynne had the support within her party to take the Liberal leadership.
That she defied their expectations does not surprise me. This is a woman who, in fewer than 13 years, has risen through the political ranks from parent activist (and an anti-amalgamation activist too alongside John Sewell) to cabinet minister in various portfolios and now, to Premier. I won’t agree with Wynne’s views all the time, or even much of it, but there’s no question, she’s a contender. She’s smart, strategically savvy and has shown she is capable of being a team player even if she might not completely agree with the game plan – witness her support for Bill 115 at the legislative table even though I can’t imagine she was in favour of the way her government went about dealing with teachers.
Wynne is also competitive. I remember interviewing her early on her political career. She had once run for school trustee in 1994 and lost. She told me she had no intention of doing that again. If she was going to run for anything, she would be running to win. And so she has.
And what of the fact she’s gay and has lived with a longtime female partner? Wynne confronted the whispering at the Liberal’s convention last weekend head on: “There was a time, not that long ago, when most of us in this race would not have been deemed suitable,” Wynne said. “ … But this province has changed.”
Her sexual orientation will undoubtedly be a hang-up for some voters. But again, Wynne has shown her ability to build bridges even with those who might be expected to recoil even within her own riding. Don Valley West includes the tony, predominantly white neighbourhoods of Leaside and North Toronto. But it also includes Thorncliffe Park, one of the country’s most densely-populated apartment neighbourhoods and with a large, south Asian, conservative Muslim population. Last I heard homosexuality was not a popular way of life with conservative Muslims. But Wynne has made a point of reaching out and bringing improvements to Thorncliffe Park. The local elementary school, Canada’s biggest with 1800 kids – and that’s just kindergarten to Grade 5! – will soon have a second school building completed exclusively for kindergarten students. Polling results confirm that even in Thorncliffe Park, Wynne trounced her competition in the last election.
Despite all that, as other pundits have pointed out, Wynne’s sexuality may be the least of her electoral hurdles. The government faces a host of problems and Wynne is going to have to dig deep into her skill set to deal with them. The challenge I’m most familiar with is the government’s standoff with public school teachers. What sort of olive branch will teachers, and more importantly, their unions, accept as good enough? With teacher unions nothing stays good enough for long. Wynne has already said she won’t tear up contracts the government essentially imposed last month. But she also wants to get extra-curricular activities back on the rails. Unions have been adamant that extra-curriculars are voluntary, much as it wants to eat its cake too by using them as a bargaining chip and not allowing members to freely volunteer if they wish to, without sanction or intimidation. The only way out of this that I can see is if Wynne is able to charm and cajole teachers into relenting on the pressure tactic by inviting them into discussions about a better, more stable bargaining environment for the next contract round. And there’s also that niggling, little talked-about two percentage point salary penalty Wynne imposed on public elementary teachers in 2009 when they overplayed their hand in the last round of bargaining. That still stands today, and the union clearly had its sights on erasing it prior to last February when contract talks quickly blew up.
Could that be an item considered outside of current contracts and so fair game for addressing? Maybe not before the next provincial election. But who knows how quickly that will swing around either?